The Art of Disney and Sotheby’s
Animation Magazine, Jan. 1995; May 1995.



    On Saturday, February 11, 1995, Sotheby’s in New York City, will continue what has fast become an animation art “tradition” by holding an auction of over 250 production backgrounds overlaid with specially created cels, from Disney’s most recent animation smash, The Lion King.
     This event will follow in the path of four other Sotheby’s “Art of” auctions in which Disney production artwork from the studio’s most recent animated hits has first been introduced to the collecting public: “The Art of Roger Rabbit” (June 1989), “The Art of The Little Mermaid” (December 1990); “The Art of Beauty and the Beast” (October 1992); and “The Art of Aladdin” (October 1993).
     This Sotheby’s-Disney relationship reflects the evolution of animation art collecting.  In the 1930's and 1940's production artwork from Walt Disney’s classic animated features and cartoons found its way into private collections in two ways.  It was often given away to Disney friends and visitors, and it was sold through the now-defunct Courvoisier Gallery of San Francisco.  Its monetary value was minimal.  The rest of the art was either held in the Disney archives or was discarded.  When Disneyland opened in 1955, production cels were sold at its stores for a few dollars each.  But the real “earthquake” in animation art collecting occurred in 1984 when Disney confronted a new phenomenon - the animation art auction. 
     That year, John Basmajian, who had worked in Disney’s animation department in the 1940's consigned for sale at Christie’s in New York a large number of Disney cels, backgrounds and sketches.  He had acquired these while at Disney, and they had graced his home and closet for many years.  When it found out about this scheduled auction, Walt Disney Productions was not amused.  Disney filed suit in federal court in New York against both Christie’s and the 85 year old Basmajian to stop the auction.
     Essentially, Disney accused Basmajian of being a thief, and claimed that this artwork should be returned and the auction canceled.   Fortunately for the future of the animation art market.  Disney lost the case.  The Court ruled that Basmajian’s art was a gift from Disney, which failed to prove what, if any, controls it had on employees’ taking art home during those vintage years.  The auction proceeded as scheduled , the prices were unprecedented, the publicity enormous; and the animation art market exploded.  All of us who collect vintage animation art owe a debt to Basmajian, who established that our hobby is legal, and that we are not dealing in stolen art!
     Thus, when Disney’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit became a huge hit a few years later, Disney found itself with a cache of production cels that it knew were of considerable value.  No longer would employees be permitted to take this stuff home with them!  By then animation art auctions were regularly conducted by Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips in New York.  Retail galleries were springing up across the country.  Disney wisely decided that if it couldn’t fight’em, it would join’em.
     Russ Cochran and Bruce Hamilton, two well-known collectors and consultants, were hired to put together an auction exclusively of Roger Rabbit cels.  In light of Disney’s lawsuit against Christie’s, it was not surprising that Sotheby’s was chosen.
     On a Wednesday in June 1989, 394 Roger Rabbit production lots were auctioned.  The beautiful, full-color auction catalogue, also a first, has itself become a collectible.  To make Roger Rabbit, the hand-painted cels were placed over live-action film stills; there were no hand-painted production backgrounds.  Instead, at the auction, the production cels were sold over a color print enlargement of the live-action film still for each cel.  Prices at the Roger Rabbit sale went through the roof.  One cel, depicting a large group of characters, sold for $50,600!  Twenty lots exceeded $10,000; most sold in the $1,000 to $4,000 range.  The event generated enormous publicity for animation art collecting. 
     After the auction, Disney released thousands of additional Roger Rabbit production cels to galleries.  Many of these were virtually identical to the auction cels, except that the retail releases were placed over black and white film stills of the live-action, not color stills.  Some of the auction buyers felt aggrieved at this, because the retail prices were much lower than the corresponding auction prices.
     Disney’s next animation smash was The Little Mermaid - the last Disney feature to utilize hand-painted acetate cels.  Recognizing a good thing, Disney dealt directly with Sotheby’s this time, cutting out any middlemen.   This December 1990 auction featured 283 master key hand-painted production cels and backgrounds.  Eleven hundred backgrounds had been painted for the film.  The prices realized were more reasonable.  Although no other Mermaid background would likely ever be sold again.  The highest price was $25,300, for an elaborate interior dining room scene.  Sixteen lots exceeded $10,000, and most sold in the $1,500 to $4,000 range.  Eighteen percent of the lots sold for under $2,000. 
     After this auction, Disney also released Little Mermaid production cels to retail galleries.  These were sold with reproduction backgrounds.   No doubt the auction prices justified Disney’s high retail prices for these cels.  Unlike the Roger Rabbit auction buyers, each Mermaid auction buyer also acquired a one-of-a-kind production background.
     Beauty and the Beast, Disney’s next hit animation feature, was the first to use, instead of hand-painted cels, Disney’s “CAPS” computer-generated characters.  A cel-animated feature requires over 100,000 hand-painted cels, so from Beauty there was obviously far less production artwork.  From 988 hand-painted, production backgrounds, 244 were auctioned, with specially created hand-painted cels of the characters placed over each background.  This auction was held, not in New York, but at the El Captain Theater in Los Angeles in October of 1992.  Despite the rarity of production art from Beauty, winning bids were on average only slightly higher than those for The Little Mermaid.  Thirteen lots exceeded $10,000, but only eleven percent of them sold for under $2,000.  Most sold in the $2,500 to $5,000 range.
     By now, Disney animation was on a roll.  Each new feature had surpassed the previous one in attendance and in profit.  Disney production art, limited edition cels and serigraphs were being marketed not only through galleries but also at the ever expanding network of Disney Stores.  Even the releases of the home videos of Mermaid and Beauty became major publicity events. 
       Aladdin continued this explosive trend.  Preceded by  a media blitz, the “Art of Aladdin” auction was held on a beautiful fall Saturday in New York in October of 1993.  Because like Beauty, Aladdin’s characters were generated by the CAPS computer, specially created character cels were placed with a production backgrounds or overlay for each lot.  Some of the “backgrounds” were absolutely minimal, however.  Over 250 lots were sold; prices were generally higher than those realized at the Beauty sale.  Twenty-Two lots exceeded $10,000.  The majority again sold in the $2,500 to $5,000 range, and once again, only eleven percent of the lots old for under $2,000.
    This auction attracted many first-time buyers, and many children were there exploring the hallowed halls of Sotheby’s.  These new bidders seemed more interested in the character depicted on a lot than in the background itself.  A cel depicting Aladdin and Jasmine in a starry embrace, over a minimal blue sky background, sold for $20,700.  And a tiny Genie cel over a virtually all red background realized $4,025.  Veteran collectors, on the other hand, bid based on the beauty of the production background, regardless of the character depicted.  For example, a cel of the five palace guards - obscure characters all - on a beautiful, huge 12 x 30 inch street scene background, sold for a mere $2,875.
     Everybody seemed to come away happy, however, including Sotheby’s.
     With The Lion King, Disney continued its streak of monster hits.  While “The Art of The Lion King” auction has some tough acts to follow, it will doubtless attract a large and generous crowd.  Disney considered holding the auction in Los Angeles and at Walt Disney World in Orlando but settled again on New York because it is, in Disney’s words, “...the heart of the art world.”
     According to Frances Ingersoll of Sotheby’s, there were 690 production backgrounds used in the film.  The Disney background artists first selected those to be maintained in the Disney research archives.  Then Ingersoll worked with Disney’s Feature Animation department to select from the remainder those 250 backgrounds and production overlays to be sold at auction.  They next determined from a detailed “freeze-frame” viewing of the film the “most important” cel set-up for each background.  The objective was to assemble a pleasing selection of the various characters.  Using the original animators’ sketches, Disney cel artists then produced the one-of-a-kind character cels to accompany each background.
     As was done at the previous auctions, Disney also specially created a cel and background for the cover of The Lion King auction catalogue.  Depicting Pride Rock and the assembled subjects, this lot’s sale proceeds will be donated to the National Audubon Society.
     Between now and February, selected lots will be on public tour by Sotheby’s in London, Los Angeles, Chicago, Orlando, and New York City.
     So what is the impact of the Disney-Sotheby’s “Art of” auctions on the animation art world?  Clearly, the enormous publicity they have generated has attracted new collectors.  The demand for animation cels really took off in late 1989.  Jim Lentz, owner of Stay Tooned Galleries in Illinois and Minnesota, says that the “Art of Roger Rabbit” auction “...did more to stimulate interest in collecting than any other event.”
     Of course, Disney itself has also benefited, and not just from its share of the auction proceeds.  Lentz notes that the Mermaid auction boosted subsequent sales of its production cels, and the Beauty auction helped fuel sales of Disney’s limited editions from that film.
     The winning bids at the “Art of” auctions have been so high, however, that dealers are not big buyers.  “There’s just no room to mark them up,” says one retailer.  Indeed, auction prices for these modern pieces often eclipse prices for vintage Disney cels and backgrounds.  For example, in June of 1993 at Sotheby’s, a production cel and matching background from 1937's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, depicting all the dwarfs standing in the forest, sold for $14,950.  Just four months later, nine modern Aladdin backgrounds sold for more than did this classic vintage scene.  For those mercenary souls who collect animation art for investment, clearly the jury is still out on the wisdom of acquiring these modern backgrounds.  Roger Rabbit lots have generally resold for less than their original auction price, in part no doubt because very similar production cels were available at retail.  Time will tell whether the rarity of the auctioned production backgrounds form Mermaid, Beauty and Aladdin will command higher resale prices from future collectors.  At “Art of The Lion King,” animation fans are well advised to buy the best background they can afford, which they also happen to like!
     So what does the future hold?  Sotheby’s, as well as many gallery owners, would love it if Disney would sell pencil sketches and other pre-production artwork from these recent animated hits.  Disney has no present plans to do so, however.  Disney has Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and a new Fantasia Continued in the pipeline.  Can the studio consistently maintain its present level of artistic excellence and commercial success?  Will the animation art market continue to flourish?  Will computers eventually eliminate all hand-drawn production artwork?
     Whatever the long-range future brings, it is sure to be interesting.

*Special Report*
The Roar of the King

     “I’m blown away!”gasped Sotheby’s Frances Ingersoll as the February 11 “Art of the Lion King” auction in New York concluded its morning session.” Veteran animation art collectors could only sigh in agreement.  Hammer prices at the auction were in the stratosphere, with most lots selling for many times Sotheby’s catalogue estimates.  Whether this record-breaking auction represents a landmark in the collecting world remains to be seen.  But one thing is certain: a whole new breed or buyers has entered the market with a vengeance!  Comparisons with past Disney “Art of...” auctions make this clear.  As with the prior Disney mega-hits Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin.  The Lion King was made using computer-generated characters projected over hand-painted production backgrounds.  Thus there were no character production cels in these pictures.  So for each lot in these “Art of ...” auctions, Disney artists created one-of-a-kind character cels, which were placed with a production background or overlay.  The resulting lot depicted an actual scene from the film, but only the background constituted actual production art.  The Beauty and Aladdin auctions attracted two kinds of bidders: traditional collectors of production art who valued, foremost, the quality of the background of a given lot, and new fans, often buying a lot for their children, who were most attracted to the characters depicted on the one-of-a-kind reproduced cels.  This tension made for some interesting bidding patterns.  At the Aladdin sale, for example, lots depicting the popular Genie character sold for more money than did lots depicting the palace guards, even when the latter included more elaborate production backgrounds.  At The Lion King sale, the “character” bidders simply overwhelmed the “background” bidders.  Some price comparisons illustrate this.  At both the Beauty and Aladdin auctions, 11 percent of the lots sold for less than $2,000.  At Lion King, none sold for less than $2,000.  Thus, there was no “low end,” and frugal buyers were shut out.  And while a majority of the lots at both Beauty and Aladdin sold in the $2,000-$5,000 range, a clear majority (56 percent) of the Lion King’s lots sold for twice that - between $5,000 - and $10,000!  The auction grossed almost $2 million, a record for any animation auction, and an amount roughly two-and-a-half times the sum of all the high-end catalogue estimates.  The highest price was $39,100 for lost 156, which included the popular characters Simba, Pumbaa, and Timon, over a beautiful brown and green jungle background.  Sotheby’s catalogue estimate for the lot was $4,000 to $5,000.  Simba was easily the most popular character, while the villains - the hyenas and Uncle Scar - were the least sought after.  Signs of what was to come were evident as the auction started.  The sales room was packed; many parents there with their children - young Lion King fans.  Sotheby’s had 10 phone-bid stations set up, and all were kept busy throughout the auction.  This level of participation was no doubt due to the auction’s massive advertising and publicity campaign, which reached beyond the traditional collector’s universe into local newspapers across the country.  After the first few lots, it was clear that something special was happening.  Some of the lots had virtually no background at all - they were essentially a “limited edition-of-one” cel.  Other lots included backgrounds or overlays that were little more than a wide smudge of paint.  Still other lots included very dark and foreboding backgrounds - such as piles of bones from the elephant graveyard or purple rocks.  It didn’t matter. The audience snapped up everything at prices well-above the estimates.  By lunch break, many veteran animation art collectors had left, with several muttering that “for these prices, I’ll get a vintage background.”  But that may no longer by possible, if the free-spending Lion King buyers also became collectors.  There were 246 Lion King cel-and-background lots sold.  How many production backgrounds exist from Snow White or Alice in Wonderland?  No one knows for sure.  But if history is any guide, The Lion King auction will certainly boost the prices of all animation art.  And Disney’s Lion King limited edition cels, which retail for up to $3,000, will look like bargains.  Did the buyers overpay for The Lion King lots?  The auction marketplace, of course, says no: yet some lots will doubtless be re-auctioned in the future and they will then compete directly with the vintage backgrounds.  One of the buyers, who paid over $15,000 for a Lion King lot, told me he was investing for his 8-year-old son’s college education.  I suspect he would have been better off putting the money into bonds!  Time will tell.

William R. Coulson is an avid animation art collector living in the Chicago area.  In his free time, he practices law. 


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